By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
Break or Remake?
The Royal Wedding we saw recently, carries levels of meaning. Not the least is that it exhibited an inherent flexibility of a public social and political instrument- in this case the Royal Monarchy. Perhaps, the monarchy had learnt lessons from the tragic death of Diana. But being ready to learn is itself demonstrative of the quality of suppleness. In confronting an external threat to its known way of life, the British Monarchy had two options: one was to let it break asunder; the other was stop it from breaking by absorbing the threatening factor, person or force. The second option keeps the institution strong by allowing for variety and readiness to face future “indiscretions.”
This is what the British Monarchy did when the proposal of Prince Harry came up. Meghan Markles was American;she was half-black; she is a divorcee; she had been a movie actress and her social backround had not been elite at all. However, the British royalty said “yes.” Maybe after attempts at persuasion; but they approved and got ready for the event. To me, the most warming incident of the marriage ceremony was when Prince Charles walked Meghan down the aisle in circumstances where her father could not turn up. The graceful venerable Prince, who resignatedly played a whole life as second fiddle to his Royal partner Majesty the Queen, once again undertook to chaperone Meghan in Royal humility.
I had an interesting online message from a friend who presented an imaginary dialogue of a stereotyped encounter that would hypothetically take place in a standard Sri Lankan Sinhala family in situations of external threats to ‘marital purity and honour.’ I reproduce it for the reader not merely for the latter’s entertainment but as a demonstrative illustration of how Sri Lankan families face social threats from contradictions of this sort. Here it is:
Mother to young daughter (subject of the proposal): “ You will do this marriage only on my death bed…. you understand?”
Father: You are ruining our good name and honour. You have tarnished our face with black, kitchen soot.”
Other Relatives: “ Sure way to spoil our kids, too. Our race is finished!”
The imaginary dialogue suggests that the Meghan lesson can be useful learning for ordinary folk in their daily lives-wherever we may live. Are you going to break or are you going to remake?
Evolution towards Democracy
Let’s shift focus,however, from the societal context to the poltical context. History provides exemplary illustrations of mouldability on the part of the monarchy in its tarnsfer into a Parliamentary democracy. The first important historical stage that marked this path of evolution towards democracy had been in 1215 when King John succumbed to the pressure of noblemen to sign the Magna Carta, which placed limits on the king’s power. The king signed it and readily began seeking the consent of the lesser noblemen over whom he governed, before he could tax them. This trend to consult the noblemen eventually led to the formation of the institution of Parliament.
An exception to Royal flexibility came up from King Charles I and the latter was executed in 1649 for carrying out war and taxing without consultation. The son of the executed King Charles II succeeded after a brief experiment with a Republic under Cromwell. It was when Mary II and her husband, William of Ornage became King and Queen( 1689) that the British Monarchy transformed into a constitutional monarchy like we have today. Parliament insisted that all powers including power to tax be handed over to it. The Monarchy did not obstruct that and it gave in. Since that time, the British Monarch stands as a figurehead as far as constitutional powers are concerned. Full constitutional monarchy happened only in 1721 under George I when a single Parliamentarian called Robert Walpole, then known as the Fisrt Lord of the Treasury, came into a new position of Prime Minister.
When the franchise itself widened in 1918 with the Representation of the People Act the democratic evoltion had been complete and Britain had a Monarchy, that stood still great and proud all right but with only symbolic power. Until this Act, only 60 per cent of British men had the right to vote. The electoate now tripled. Popular pressure became great and real. The British Monarch, long respected and venerated, begam to reign only and not rule really.
The British Monarchy knows its strength lies in the great tradition. To be sure, it is today a vital institution in the British polity. It keeps this role well after having sensed pragmatic need and then yielded to external forces of threat by absorbing the latter into a broader fold where both itself and the peoples’ representatives know to play and understand their respective boundaries.
Meghan as a New force?
It is unlikely that threats to an old orderly way of life will cease with the marriage. Meghan Markles will not be a Kate. She is a stronger charcter with a will of her own. That is how a media personality and movie star is made up. Meghan has also been noted as a fighter for womens’ rights. She is bound to step outside the Royal veil and become “too noticed.” Maybe for the common good! Who knows? Will the Royal establishment become a new force with Meghan Markles.